The Vermont Senate Tuesday turns to end-of-life choices. As state senators debate a bill that would give patients with less than six months to live the choice to end their lives with doctor-prescribed drugs, Vermont has emerged as a key battleground in the national debate over the issue.
Franklin County State Senator Don Collins hasn’t made his decision public yet. "I’m listening to my constituents," Collins said. "I’m hearing from both sides."
For Collins, this piece of legislation is personal.
"I can’t really imagine living like a couple of my friends did with cancer eating them alive day-by-day," he said. "I can’t imagine wanting to live like that, personally. But I guess until you get there you don’t really know."
The national movement to give patients the choice of how they die focuses on Vermont this week. Oregon and Washington have legalized the practice, but Massachusetts voters rejected a similar measure last year.
If this bill is enacted into law, Vermont would become the first state to pass a statute through a traditional legislative process. But the bill’s path has been anything but conventional: it won the unanimous recommendation of the Health and Welfare Committee but the Judiciary Committee recommended it be rejected.
Supporters say they have the votes and that the bill has serious momentum in Montpelier.
To bolster support, Patient Choices Vermont, which supports the bill, has spent more than $39,000 in the past three weeks to run newspaper, radio and television spots like this one:
Meanwhile, a coalition of religious leaders, physicians, and disability activists has asked people to speak out against the measure.
"We do not believe the safeguards are adequate," said Mark Kaufman of the Vermont Center for Independent Living, testifying before the Judiciary Committee. Kaufman said the bill could open the risk of foul play.
"When you’re talking about life and death, how many mistakes are acceptable?" he asked. "Is one death through coercion just a statistical blip? Or is it a dead Vermonter?"
Gov. Peter Shumlin, a longtime champion of what supporters call end-of-life choices, predicts the bill will pass. Shumlin says he’s motivated largely by personal considerations.
"Why would we prevent people from making a choice about the end of their own life when they’re terminally ill? If you don’t want to make that choice obviously you shouldn’t," Shumlin explained. "If you do, you should be able to. And it just seems to be a simple act of compassion for people who are terminally ill, in extraordinary pain and want to choose their own destiny."
Senators say this is one of the most wrenching questions a lawmaker is ever asked to decide.
If the bill passes today, its fate is still unclear. It will come up for final approval on Thursday when there will be the possibility of more amendments.
You can hear the debate live on VPR’s stream from the Statehouse here.